MONTREAL -- Parents and teachers expressed dismay at the idea of sending children back to school before May 4, with some going so far as to accuse the Quebec government of using kids as “guinea pigs” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A big wave of emotions and incomprehension swept over parents' Facebook groups,” said Pierre Avignon, chairperson of the governing board for Notre-Dame-de-Grace school, located in the Montreal borough with the highest amount of COVID-19 caes.

On Friday, Premier Francois Legault said children are less at risk for complications stemming from the coronavirus.

“Many are afraid things will go too fast and people will be put at risk,” said Avignon.


Avignon expressed concern that obeying the rules of social distancing could be difficult in primary schools, “where we are forced to take shifts in the cafeteria and playground. There are never two meters” of space.

According to Quebec public health director Horacio Arruda, the reopening of schools would mean that children would participate in the natural immunization of the population.

“Young people who could get the disease with almost no symptoms are like being vaccinated,” he said. “It's natural vaccination that will take hold. It's important in society that a certain part of the population is vaccinated.”

An online petition demanding the closure of schools and daycares until September has garnered more than 62,000 signatues by Friday evening after only a few hours.

The petition said that “the lives of children and adolescents” would be “endangered” and suggested following the example of other Canadian provinces.

“Parents are advised to follow public health recommendations. They're the experts,” said Federation of Quebec Parents Committees chairman Kevin Roy.

Roy said he wouldn't fear reopening schools if it came at the recommendation of public health experts.

Sonia Ethier, president of CSQ, which represents 125,000 employees in the education sector, said Legault's words seemed like “improvisation” and have aroused “a lot of excitement” among teachers.

“They raise a lot of questions and fears,” she said in a statement, saying the government should consult her union before making any decisions on this issue.

Sylvain Mallette, president of the Autonomous Federation of Education, which represents 45,000 teachers in the French-language school boards, hypothesized the private school network is exerting “colossal pressure” on the Quebec government.

Private schools “take advantage of the crisis to maintain their activities under the threat of certain parents who don't hesitate to say they will stop paying if the service contract isn't respect,” he said.

Though children seem to be less affected by the virus, Mallette said that's not the case for “adults around them when classes are open, who are in some cases over 60, have autoimmune diseases or are elderly.”